Amateur Club Rugby in Scotland: Still Waters Run Deep

You have to hand it to Melrose, 2014 has been a great year for the club. An unlikely but ultimately well-deserved Prem One title was followed by an emphatic sweep of the Kings of the Borders series, concluded on Saturday with a fourth consecutive series win at the Earlston Games. By the time they play out the two remaining sevens tournaments (at Selkirk and Jed respectively) they will have played 42 senior fixtures in all competitions this season.

This is, to put it bluntly, a huge undertaking for a semi-professional/amateur side. They are far from alone, both Gala and Edinburgh Accies have also topped the 40 plus mark this season to name but a few. With the various tournaments and league requirements it is now not an uncommon volume of games for club sides at that level. To put this in perspective, Edinburgh Rugby, a professional side with a squad of over 40, full time professional players will complete less than 30 fixtures in all competitions this season.

There is an excellent article in The Scotsman today from the ever astute Allan Massie in which he accurately nails the key differences between the club game and the professional game and also notes the blurred lines between semi-professional and professional players and their job remits. Ironically, it would seem, in Scottish club rugby the major difference appears to be that once you become a full-time professional rugby you appear to play 50% less rugby than you do as a part-time amateur player.

Within the amateur club game, especially at a lower level (and/or reserve team level) there is a huge problem in fulfilling these bloated fixture lists. Below the National Leagues (Level 2) this season, there have been 29 teams deducted points for failing to fulfil league fixtures this season. What makes that figure even more extraordinary is that, generally (depending on the particular Championship Committee) these clubs are only deducted points after a few warnings and that the figure of postponed or cancelled games is, in fact, far higher. For example, Gala YM RFC have still to complete their season (as of 3rd May)and are in serious danger of losing their East Regional Division 3 status after cancelling their final fixture against Queensferry RFC a total of six consecutive occasions for various (and often valid) reasons.

There is a big decline in adult playing numbers in Scotland. I don’t care what the SRU statistics show. There is a huge difference between numbers of registered players and numbers of players who can actually commit to 20-30 games a season home and away plus training. The volume of postponements and points deductions tell that story themselves as do some of the results. Where 100 point beatings used to be a rarity they are becoming more regular as teams are forced to field weak sides or start games with less than 15 players to adhere to fixture requirements. The game in general is struggling to cope with its own demands.

“Ironically, it would seem, in Scottish club rugby the major difference appears to be that once you become a full-time professional rugby you appear to play 50% less rugby than you do as a part-time amateur player.”

How do I know this? Because I play in these leagues for my hometown team of Langholm RFC and (because I now live in Edinburgh) I’m also dual registered with Stewarts Melville FP RFC. On a weekly basis I either play in East Division Regional League One or Reserve League National One and most seasons I see the struggle to field teams both in my respective clubs and others around our leagues first hand. I’m by no means a good rugby player and at 37 I should be playing veterans or social rugby but due to a universal lack of front row (and players in general) my services are in relatively high demand.

So, what are the answers? You’ll be surprised to find out there is no easy fix. Personally, I would like to see two things. Firstly, we need to see an acceptance of the situation by The SRU, the Championship Committees and the clubs (collectively). There is far too much ‘head-in-the-sand, fingers-in the-ears, la-la-la I’m not listening’ going on. Whether that is to hide targets for growth of the game or out of misplaced pride, the situation needs addressed and the denial put to the side. Yes some clubs are thriving and have great numbers but as a collective whole Scottish Club Rugby is suffering and that needs recognised.

If acceptance of the situation is the first stage, then action is the next step. The second thing I would like to see if much more flexibility and co-operation between clubs and players. When you have a situation that a lower league game is cancelled because a team can’t raise 15 players or don’t have a front row then those remaining 25-30 players should be free (where possible) to play for another team. Priority should be given to league fixtures over reserve games and higher leagues over lower ones but ultimately the dwindling numbers of players need to be utilised better. That way we don’t have players who want to play losing out and becoming disenfranchised with the sport in general and we also have less postponed fixtures.

In this day and age of social media there should be few barriers to managing a central hub or repository for players and clubs to register interest in playing for another club at short notice. For example, should a Cartha Queens Park RFC reserve game be cancelled due to lack of players then those remaining players (on both sides) should be free to turn out for Bishopton RFC or GHK RFC or whoever needs players without fear of reprieve (such as St Boswells RFC). I’m aware of the implications of player registration for insurance purposes etc but surely at a lower level dispensation can be made for ‘emergency loans’ (not just limited to front row) or for players to be dual registered to an SRU backed and administered centralised ‘player repository’?

Whatever happens, something needs to be done. If we are to maintain our volume of fixtures and clubs then we (as a sport) need to be a bit cleverer about how we make the most of limited resources and player base. The much vaunted ‘semi-professional’ top tier and regional academy plans proposed (and re-considered) by the SRU also needs to help address the deeper problems in the club game. If it doesn’t we will sleep walk into a situation where we cannot sustain our rugby clubs and whole leagues will have to be consolidated leading to less rugby in our communities. Many have said that to fix Scottish Rugby we need to start at grass roots level and work our way up. If we want the amateur club rugby in Scotland to remain as the vibrant, competitive and proud game it is now then we need to act soon.

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Journalist and rugby player for @LangholmRugby and the @PigbariansRFC, please follow @brodiesmithers

7 comments on “Amateur Club Rugby in Scotland: Still Waters Run Deep

  1. Concerned Rugby Public on

    Well constructed article and lots of truths within it!

    Having been in the inner circle I am very uncomfortable with the fact that Scottish Rugby manipulate the figures to their own ends.

    The majority of senior clubs in Scotland have their player registration figures skewed. For example say Pigbarians RFC have been a club established years ago and they currently fulfil all of their 1st XV fixtures but fail to put out a 2nd XV more than a couple of times a year. Their REGISTERED senior players on the other hand range from 50 to 70. These are the numbers Scottish Rugby pull together to publish their glossy report full of spin to exhibit the growth and sustainability of adult rugby in Scotland when in actual FACT the picture is grim.

    When clubs fail to fulfil a fixture they are sanctioned and have proportions of their participation payment or in some cases all of it held back. Are these the appropriate actions of a national governing body? Substitute sanction with support and you go a little ways toward fulfilling their actual role as the custodians of our game and not the PLC playing at being a competent commercial enterprise. They do one thing really well though as a commercial enterprise and thats to forget the little guy – the little guy in this case is the clubs.

    Further still in terms of their manipulation of the figures is the recent target of increasing the number of teams playing rugby in Scotland. Lets go back to Pigbarians RFC and their youth section for example. Pigbarians RFC have a flourishing junior club, upwards of 20 players in each section of the mini’s. P4 to P7 counts as 4 teams right? Wrong in terms of how these figures are being portrayed by Scottish Rugby. The maths goes as follows – you can get 2 teams out each of those P4, 5, and, 6 squads and maybe 1 out of that P7 squad. Suddenly Pigbarians RFC’s mini section goes from having 4 teams playing week in week out to having 7 teams in their mini section. That looks great on a glossy doesn’t it?

    Until there is complete honesty and transparency about the TRUE state of club rugby in Scotland, and that means what the actual numbers are then you cannot really attempt to grow the game. The longer Scottish Rugby paper over the cracks with growth figures that are no reflection on what is actually happening then the deeper into decline all aspects of our club game will go.

  2. Angus on

    I read an SRU release to say the Super 8 is going ahead and then I read about clubs rejecting it. What is the actually situation?

    • Ruairidh Campbell on

      The SRU made 2 proposals: firstly, there was the idea of a new academy structure. The clubs accepted this and I believe that it will be put in place soon. Next, they proposed this “Super 8” with the top clubs in Scotland becoming semi-professional. The top clubs that would be affected by this were quite happy to go along with this proposal. The issues, however, came from the lower league clubs who rejected it because they said that the gap between the leagues would be far too big and it would be extremely hard to get promoted and be able to stay up in the higher leagues. As this was rejected at the time (January) the SRU said that they would take another look at the details and it would be proposed again in the near future (apparently last week). However, if anything is going to happen, then it will not take place until around 2016-17. You can see the letter written to the clubs at this link: http://www.scottishrugby.org/news/14/01/31/strategic-plan-update-letter

    • Angus on

      Thanks Ruairidh

      Can anyone tell me the argument against the revival of the District Championship? Even as an amateur comp it would be a showcase for the best club players and allow them to play a higher standard of game

  3. Paul on

    Not disagreeing that Clubs and custodians are painting too rosy a picture, thus giving an impression far far removed from reality, but I would question the number of games you suggest players are playing.

    I’m playing in the lower reaches of West regional reserve rugby and have played eight games this season despite being available for many more.

    Our 1st xv must have fielded in excess of 50 players across 22 league games, but we’re probably looking at only 1 ever present. So whilst there may be some players out there playing 40 games a season, I’m guessing the majority play less than 20 – and if you go to West 3 & 4 you’re probably lucky if more than a handful of Clubs (never mind players) have played 20 games this season.

    Our reserve friendly pool has been a shambles this year, and if there’s no change, it will be again next year – so I might be lucky to get 8 games next season.

    What we need is to seperate league rugby from social rugby.

    We need a mechanism for those Clubs who are not able to play league rugby, to play regular “non league” rugby.

    So if St Boswell want to play league rugby, they abide by the rules and take any punishment coming for them stepping outside of these rules, or if Gala YM, or Strathaven or Wigtownshire 2s, know they cant get a team out to fulfil a league season, they have the re-assurance they can withdraw from the league but still pick up social fixtures – but they can’t, cause the only way to guarantee fixtures at the moment is to be in a league.

    We need a reality check; our player numbers aren’t what we’re being told, many Clubs are struggling financially, whilst facilities are far from what’s required if we are to develop our sport into something that is attractive to coming generations.

  4. Duncan Scott on

    A lot of these fixture postponements for Gala YM were due to the number of injuries in the 1sts and 2nds team. At one stage of the season there were 16 players injured that had played for the 1sts at the start of the season which then took its toll for the 2nds and left the YM with minimal players, a lot of whom had just stepped up from the U18s team with no senior rugby experience.

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